The $11 Billion Federal Maternity Leave Pay Act

05/04/2015 11:55 am ET | Updated May 04, 2016

Now that a woman is running for president of the United States, there is sure to be increased media dialogue about women's issues. We should expect to hear more about abortion, pay inequity and violence against women. But the one issue that is finally getting long overdue attention is the one about which Americans have had the least productive dialogue: the need for funded maternity leave.

The United States is the only high-income nation in the world that does not have a federally funded maternity leave program. Maternity leave programs around the world vary in duration of leave and rates of pay to mothers, but they exist in the places that you'd least expect. Like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Iran. The fact that the United States doesn't have a federal maternity leave program is a global embarrassment.

It's also an incredible opportunity.

The United States is starting from scratch when it comes to developing a program for maternity leave. It's a chance for us to create an innovative, comprehensive, yet realistic plan that supports working mothers and their families. The data shows that providing maternity leave is positive for mothers, families and employers. Implementing a maternity leave program can contribute to a stronger economy by improving infant health, cultivating childhood development, enabling women to stay in their jobs and reducing employee turnover. It's hard not to support the concept.

That's also why it's hard not to salute the efforts of states like California, New Jersey and Rhode Island that have implemented home-grown maternity leave programs. These programs get their funding from employee payroll deductions. Unfortunately, leaving this important issue up to the states may result in a patchwork of regional policies that inconsistently offer support for new working mothers. Even more troubling, it lets the United States Congress off the hook with regards to answering the critical question, "Do we, as a nation, support retaining working mothers in the workforce?" Until we have a national plan for maternity leave in America, the answer to that question is, "No."

Since we have no federal program, we have nothing to lose when negotiating for one. This is a case where beggars can be choosers. Therefore, we should take the blank slate of maternity leave policy, and color it with fresh new ideas grounded in fiscal responsibility.

With this in mind, I present the Federal Maternity Leave Pay Act (FMLPA).

Implementation of the Federal Maternity Leave Pay Act would cost approximately $11 billion a year. Earlier this year, President Obama proposed spending billions of dollars to encourage states to propose plans for family and medical leave programs. If we are willing to spend several billion dollars just to research how to fund a maternity leave program, it makes sense to spend $11 billion to actually do it.

The following five tenets define the plan:

1. FMLPA will be administered and funded at the federal level. This ensures that there will be a consistent plan implemented in every state across the nation. It eliminates concern over potential changes to maternity leave benefits for pregnant women and their families who must move prior to childbirth. A federal law that is implemented uniformly for new working mothers, regardless of their place of work or their socio-economic status, is egalitarian. In a country with increasing income disparity, implementing a plan that is consistent and fair is crucial to addressing significant gaps in income in our population.
2. Implementation of the plan will be budget neutral. The cost of the plan should be balanced by commensurate cuts in other sections of the federal budget. Eleven billion dollars is approximately 0.29% of the $3.8 trillion in Total Outlays for 2015 proposed in the 2016 federal budget. A straight 0.29% cut across Total Outlays could provide the funding for FMLPA. Alternatively, the cuts could be directed to specific sections of the budget to neutralize the financial expense of FMLPA.
3. The duration of maternity leave will be four months after each qualifying birth. Four months is the minimal amount of time a new mother requires to provide her child with the healthy foundation that maternity leave is intended to foster. During this period, a mother will have the opportunity to nurse her child and to establish healthy routines for both her baby and for herself. At the end of four months, infants will begin sleeping for longer periods of time, will be able to start the shift to solid foods and will play more independently.
4. Maternity leave benefits will only be available for a woman's first three births. Every 13 seconds, there is a net gain of one person in the United States. While American women should have the right to decide how many children they would like to parent, a plan that provides everything to everyone when our natural and financial resources are becoming increasingly strained is not fiscally responsible.
5. The percentage of income awarded to a mother will decrease with each birth. First time working mothers require significant financial, emotional and organizational support. Major household expenditures are required for a woman's first child. By the time a woman has a second or third child, however, household infrastructure is in place and she has an increased understanding of her role as a working mother. As a result, less support is necessary. The FMLPA allows a woman to receive 85% of her salary after the first child, 65% after the second, and 35% after the third.

I have attached details of the FMLPA to this blog post. The $11 billion estimate for the FMLPA could be refined with improved access to data and additional resources to conduct further analysis. Regardless of the figure identified to fund a federal maternity leave plan, there should be an expectation that the requirement will increase as more women utilize the benefits. Therefore, it will be important for policy makers to calculate not only the costs of the program, but also the economic benefits that such a program will generate. Documenting the program's benefits can help to drive FMLPA, at least in part, towards a self-funded model.

The Federal Maternity Leave Pay Act should be but one of many proposals created by citizens, organizations and our elected officials to ensure that the United States finally implements a program to support new working mothers. Review, debate, propose and demand: America needs a federal maternity leave program!